Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Next Four Years

Follow-through and fulfillment are tasks for Wharton and council.

Posted By on Wed, Sep 28, 2011 at 1:54 PM

Memphis mayor A C Wharton will be reelected on October 6th.

Theoretically, Shelby County commissioner James Harvey or former Memphis city councilman Edmund Ford Sr. could win, just as the University of Memphis could win the rest of its football games this year, but they won't.

A couple of incumbent council members are in some danger, but most of the council will be back too, assuring continuity in city government for a few more years.

That's important, because Memphis has a lot of unfinished business at the fairgrounds, riverfront, aerotropolis, the Bass Pro Pyramid, Graceland and Elvis Presley Boulevard, Overton Square, Beale Street, Electrolux, and the public schools. Since 2007, Wharton, the council, and business supporters have laid the foundation or secured funding for those projects. The theme of the next four years will be follow-through and fulfillment.

Here are the knowns and known-unknowns on the big deals.

Fairgrounds: The city council and interim mayor Myron Lowery went for the quick fix and threw in with the football guys — University of Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, Fred Jones of the Southern Heritage Classic, and Steve Ehrhart of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl — over developer Henry Turley's proposed youth sports center with retail and hotels. Tiger Lane is in its second season as a tailgating area, but the fairgrounds falls short of its goal of becoming an everyday facility. The $75 million in Tourism Development Zone financing Turley secured from the state in 2008 was contingent on his group's investment of $50 million.

Riverfront: At a cost of $38 million, Beale Street Landing is scheduled to open in the summer of 2012. The boat dock will serve the Great American Steamboat Company, which is scheduled to begin offering cruises in 2012. The company, which is getting a $9 million loan of federal funds from the city, says its headquarters will be in Memphis and create 268 jobs. Previous companies offering Mississippi River cruises went out of business. The Riverfront Development Corporation calls Tom Lee Park "the worst riverfront park in America." Some of this year's Memphis in May events were moved to the fairgrounds because of flooding. Scenic Riverside Drive is already closed to cars in May and was closed to cars last weekend for a charity bike ride. Regular "Riverside Rides" could bring Memphians down to the park to judge for themselves.

Airport: "America's hassle-free connector hub" is certainly that but in part because of over-capacity on the passenger side as Delta cut back its flights in Memphis. Vendors are hurting. The new $89 million Ground Transportation Center is scheduled to open in 2012. To achieve aerotropolis status, more office tenants around the airport are needed.

Bass Pro Pyramid: The store opening is set for August 2013. Requests for proposals for development of the Pinch neighborhood will go out in early 2012. The 160-room expansion of the Marriott hotel next to the convention center is not expected until 2016.

Graceland: In 2007, the city secured Tourism Development Zone status to fund $250 million in new visitor facilities and improvements along Elvis Presley Boulevard. But in May, the driving force, Robert Sillerman, sold his company, including Graceland and Elvis Presley Enterprises, to Apollo Global Management, whose enthusiasm for Memphis is unclear.

Overton Square: The city is spending $6 million for a two-story parking garage and floodwater retention basin, which are not yet under way. Loeb Properties wants to redevelop the square as an arts, entertainment, and retail center in 2012. Meanwhile, vacancies abound.

Beale Street: It's no longer developer John Elkington's headache. The city is taking over control of the Beale Street Historic District. Bright side: A consultant's report says Beale is the biggest source of downtown tourism taxes. Dark side: city running a nightclub district.

Electrolux: Groundbreaking for the future pride of Presidents Island is October 5th. The manufacturer of kitchen appliances is getting $188 million in state and local subsidies to create 1,240 direct jobs and construction costs of $361 million.

Schools: The merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools will occur in 2013. Their combined enrollment of approximately 150,000 could dwindle between now and then, and even more after that date if some suburbs start their own systems. The talk of "a new world-class school system" is grandiose. Catching up to state benchmarks is more realistic given the low test scores in MCS.

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